Christmas stress: how to deal with festive anxiety
We’re told that Christmas is the most wonderful time of the year, but for many people it just isn’t. Financial worries, family difficulties, loneliness, pressure to measure up to unrealistic ideals, stress… all of these can add up to a stressful Festive season even without the current Covid situation. If you have anxiety about Christmas and the holidays, here are some thoughts and some practical tips.
First, let's consider some of the problems that might come up at Christmas and think about how they can be so powerful because they activate memories that we may have been carrying with us for a lifetime. Christmas innately makes us think of family and our own childhood, whatever that means for each of us, and it's here that talking through your own feelings about your past and how it relates to your present may help.
Unrealistic family images
We are all fed images of the "perfect" family, gathered around the perfect tree, often still with very traditional gender roles, adorable smiling tots and so on. (To say nothing of the racist backlash that some brands have encountered merely for having a black family on an advert). Not all of us, indeed surely not many of us, live in the idealised world of a John Lewis advert.
On the one hand, we can say to ourselves "it's just marketing", but this imagery is pernicious and goes deep, and it can be very triggering of thoughts of our own childhood or family life, particularly if we did not grow up in an especially stable environment or are forced to confront difficult and painful feelings of our own families. Whether it is divorce, being apart from children, wanting children but not being able to have them, it can be unhelpful and upsetting to be bombarded by other people's prescribed idea of what happiness looks like.
Practical tip: try not to compare your situation to something that is unrealistic and essentially a fiction anyway.
Seasonal depression and low mood
Cold weather, lack of light, shortages of Vitamin D, and the fact that it may be harder to get outside for long periods: these all have real and measurable effects on physical, and hence mental, health. Depression around Christmas is likely not to be a result of any one factor, but Seasonal Affective Disorder and related conditions of low mood at this time of year could well be a factor. Christmas for many British people also means alcohol, and while this can be a pleasure, overuse of alcohol can contribute to anxiety.
Practical tip: try to get out every day, maybe in the morning when such sun as there is might be brighter. Take a vitamin D supplement. Try to move around each day. See your GP if you need extra support.
This year perhaps more than most, lots of people are feeling the pressure to buy expensive gifts or put on luxurious meals at a time when redundancies, job worries, struggling businesses and so on are making it tough. Money can come to represent all sorts of things for different people, and we can allow our perceptions to be warped by what others are doing, or what we think they are doing, or what the people selling the expensive gifts and luxurious meals want us to think we ought to do. Christmas can be an especially tough time for this.
Practical tip: try not to put too much pressure on yourself to live up to other people's expectations, and decide that you will only spend what you feel you can.
Memories of Christmases past
Christmas can often be an upsetting time after a bereavement, or after a relationship break-up. It can feel especially lonely and empty at this time of year if it seems like everyone else is having a wonderful time with loved ones.
Practical tip: acknowledge that this is a sad time of year and that is valid and legitimate to miss people and feel sorry that they are not around. Give yourself permission to feel your feelings and perhaps consider tying to name them and explore them via therapy.